Walking past Number 10

by Kelvin Smith

I remember when it was normal to cut through Downing Street on the way to catch a bus in Whitehall. It took one flight of stone steps, a short walk past a single policeman, perhaps a few tourist cameras, and there you were.

Then it started to change. In the early 1970s, my first publishing job was in Buckingham Gate and the office overlooked the parade ground of Wellington Barracks. It was a time of IRA activity and we were used to the disruption and road closures caused by bomb threats at the Passport Office on near-by Petty France.

We took our morning tea, provided by a tea trolley, timed to coincide with the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. The Guards Regiments were usually serving in Northern Ireland, so we regularly enjoyed the sight of Ghurkhas fast marching to Sousa’s Liberty Bell March, the theme music to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. We sang along.

One day there was a big bang. I knew the noise was a bomb because my mother, a veteran of the Liverpool blitz, had often made just this noise – WHOOOOF – with a little jump in the air and wide open eyes, the sound of a landmine explosion in the next street that never left her memory of young married life. In 1970s London, I used to think how strange it was that someone had been trying to kill her when she was the age I was then.

On that day the big bang drew us to the windows. The line of sight placed the plume of smoke directly behind Downing Street, and it was some time before we learnt that the target on that day was not the Prime Minister’s residence but New Scotland Yard, then still in its original location on Whitehall Place.

There was obviously a contingency plan. Friends reported armed troops in Trafalgar Square in the hours that followed, and the next day the parade ground at Wellington Barracks was full of armoured vehicles.

In spite of this and other explosions, life continued as normal, but something tells me that this moment, this explosion that hit at the heart of state security, was a marker in the subsequent closing down of London’s urban landscape. A motivation for military and civilian powers to intensify plans that anticipated threats of violence to political targets, that bomb in 1973 seems to me to have been a signal for the start of the changes that have created the Britain we inhabit nearly fifty years later.